The lights are on but nobody’s home. How to make eyes stand out in your portraits.

Above: Image, Gina Milicia

Ever had a conversation with someone who was distracted? On the surface they appear to be listening to your amazing story about the dream you had last night. They are nodding in all the right places and saying “oh wow” and “oh no” every so often but there is something that tells you they aren’t 100% present. It’s nothing tangible. It’s a feeling, there is a disconnect.

I often look at portraits and feel that same disconnect. The shot is beautifully lit, posed and composed but when you look into the eyes it’s like the lights are on but nobody’s home.

If you want your portraits to stand out from the pack a great starting point is making sure the lights ARE on, somebody’s home and they welcome you with a big hug, a cup of tea and freshly baked Nutella doughnuts.

Here are my favourite tips to make eyes look amazing in your portraits.

 1. Wardrobe.

The colours a person is wearing close to their face and in the background can make a huge impact on how the eyes look in a photo.

Blue and green eyes look incredible when the person wears certain tones of blue and green and can look like complete caca when the wrong colours are worn.

Brown eyes can look even darker and more soulful when white is worn.

If possible, before you photograph someone, test out a variety of colours by holding a variety of shirts or tops in different colours just under their chin.

I also ask my clients to bring a variety of different coloured tops to the session or suggest they wear the outfit they get the most compliments in when they wear it.

Above: White shirts can make brown eyes look soulful and warm.

 2. Connection

The best actors in the world earn the big bucks because they make you believe in the story they are telling. The reason many of them are so convincing is that while they are acting they become that person.

They immerse themselves in the role 100%.

Whenever we have a thought our body can’t tell the difference between what is real and what’s made up.

If you want your model to look warm, connected and engaged then you must do everything in your power to help them feel connected. This is just like a savings account. The more you invest the more you get back.

A simple “okay, 1,2,3 smile” will give you an okay shot but if you really want to see the lights come on, you need to work for it.

You can help your model and bring a spark to their eyes by giving them something nice to think about. The trick here is to distract them from the reality of the shoot that may cause anxiety and make eyes appear cold and distracted.

 3. Visualisation

It’s very natural for most models to be over thinking when they are posing for a photo. Often there are thousands of thoughts (mostly negative) going through their mind as they pose for you. “Does my hair look good?” “Does my bum look big in this?” “Did I leave the iron on?” These negative thoughts are reflected in the model’s eyes and are the main cause of “photo face”.

Asking your model to visualise a positive scenario really helps to block the negative thoughts and bring a light and warmth into their eyes.

My visualisation prompts vary depending on my model. If it’s an actor I might ask them to visualise their dream acting gig or winning an Academy Award. If it’s an overworked executive I might ask them to visualise their dream vacation.

 4. There’s always a catch

Above: A catchlight is basically a reflection of a bright light source in your model’s eyes.

Beautiful eyes in portraits have beautiful catchlights or eyelights. A catchlight is basically a reflection of a bright light source in your model’s eyes.

Healthy eyes are bright and shiny surfaces and will reflect their surroundings.

It’s this highlight that gives the eyes life and depth. Without a catchlight eyes can look dark and flat.

Catchlights will vary in size and shape depending on the light source being used.

If you zoom in on any portrait you can easily tell how many lights were used to create the shot and the type of light modifier used.

My favourite catchlights are large windows, large soft boxes or silver reflectors.

There are no rules for the position of catchlights but they do look more natural in the top right corner of the eye rather than the bottom of the eye.

 5. Post Production

Above: Before

Above: After

Post-production can be a game changer, when it’s done well. The secret to great editing is not overdoing it. When working on an image our eyes get used to the adjustments and we may not notice how much we’ve altered the image.

My favourite eye enhancement technique in Lightroom is as follows:

  1. Open the adjustment brush in the Develop module (shortcut K)

For warm tones (browns and hazel)

  • Increase the temperature slider (1.) to make the eyes appear warmer in tone.
  • Increase the exposure slider (2.) to brighten the iris.
  • Increase the shadow slider to bring more detail into the shadow area (3.)
  • Increase the sharpness slider to make the eyes appear more detailed.(4.)

For cool tones (blues and greens)

  • Decrease the temperature or tint slider (1.) to make the eyes appear cooler or greener in tone.
  • Increase the exposure slider (2.) to brighten the iris.
  • Increase the shadow slider to bring more detail into the shadow area (3.)
  • Increase the sharpness slider to make the eyes appear more detailed.(4.)
  1. Modify your brush size so it is approximately 20% smaller than the iris or the coloured part of the eye.
  2. Set the flow to 50% and Density to 50% and brush on your adjustments to achieve a subtle pop of brightness, colour and sharpness.

*Settings will vary depending on the exposure of your image. A good base to start with is:

  • -25 Temp for blue eyes
  • -25 Temp for green eyes
  • +25 Temp for brown/hazel eyes

Then use the following slider settings

  • +25 Exposure
  • +15 Shadows
  • +30 Sharpness

Experiment with sliders until you get the look you are after.


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About Gina

About Gina

Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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